Jeff Lam’s been thinking about opening his new Chinatown restaurant Chinese Tuxedo for a decade. The general contractor and restaurant consultant worked in the neighborhood for more than 30 years, and as he sees it, the restaurant scene here is stuck in the past. Dining in actual China, he says, is now far more modern — where people go out for an experience and not just to eat food.
When his friends visit NYC Chinatown, they tell him that nothing’s changed in decades. And post 9/11, business in the neighborhood has struggled. Lam finds it troublesome. "I don’t want Chinese culture to disappear from New York City," says Lam, who immigrated from China. "In order to do that, we have to make sure to create a real Chinese restaurant, that’s like in China." Then he met Eddy Buckingham.
Buckingham’s from Australia, where Chinese dining doesn’t bear as much of the "cheap eats" stigma that it has here. It’s more common for a Cantonese restaurant to be a go-to for a special night out in Melbourne, the way French bistros can be in New York. Buckingham, who used to own the bar The Liberty in Manhattan, also really loves Chinese food, loves Chinatown, and wanted to do a restaurant that celebrates the diversity of the cuisine. They got along — "Eddy is my person," Lam says — so they teamed up, a 50/50 partnership. This week, they opened the doors on Chinese Tuxedo, serving fare from different provinces of the country. The restaurant, housed in a former Chinese opera house at 5 Doyers Street, is a place where they want people to have a good time. But it’s also their bid to spark change in Chinatown — and in New Yorkers’ perception of what a night out in the neighborhood means.
Lam and Buckingham aren’t the only people in New York trying to modernize Chinese dining in the city. Red Farm’s been open in the West Village since 2011. There’s Mission Chinese and Fung Tu, both on the edge of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. This year, Hao Noodle and Tea, an import from the mainland, opened in the West Village with small plates and rustic decor straight out of new Brooklyn. But none of them are in the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown. Chinese Tuxedo is on one of the neighborhood’s most famous streets. Doyers was once home to street gang battles, and it’s where dim sum restaurant Nom Wah lives.
Chinese Tuxedo is more upscale — and more expensive — than most restaurants in the area, though trendy cocktail speakeasy Apotheke lives nearby. Salads, ranging from a grilled calamari and watercress salad to roasted duck and Chinese celery salad, range from $15 to $24, and noodle dishes, from egg noodles with pork floss to mapo lo mein, range from $19 to $25. They’re prices that wouldn’t be shocking in the West Village or at any trendy Italian restaurant in the city, but they’re quite a bit higher than the typical place in Chinatown. "That’s something I know we confront," Buckingham says. "People will question the value."
'We have to have real bonafides that the Chinese cognoscenti are impressed by'
As such, they created the menu to have "broad appeal," to attract people from outside the neighborhood, Buckingham says. It pulls from different regions of China, combining more traditional dishes with ones that will be familiar to people who are newer to Chinese food. "We have to have real bonafides that the Chinese cognoscenti are impressed by," Buckingham says. "At the same time, we have to have Chinese food for people who don’t think they like Chinese food." For example, a steamed chicken dish from southern province Hainan is traditionally served with the bones in, but at Chinese Tuxedo, the breast is served deboned while the wings are cut with the bones intact. "You look at it, and it looks like a Hainanese dish," Buckingham says. They also eventually plan to open The Good Sort next door, a vegan cafe and coffee shop inspired by Australian coffee culture, and Tong in the basement, a more casual noodle restaurant with lower price points.
Buckingham knows that they battle the sentiment that they’re outsiders, even though Lam’s been working in the neighborhood for years. Buckingham is Australian and white, and the executive chef Paul Donnelly, an alum of acclaimed Sydney Asian fusion restaurant Ms. G’s, is originally from Scotland and also white. For his role, Buckingham and Lam sought out many local and Chinese chefs, but Donnelly ended up being the best fit. "He has the passion for cooking Chinese food, which is a great fit for the kind of food I have envisioned for a long time," Lam says. The chef's pedigree and connections means that high quality vendors come to him, and Lam and Buckingham think that Donnelly's experience in fine dining will draw a wide swathe of people, particularly younger people who increasingly demand the farm-to-table ethos that food culture's engendered.
The space itself is outfitted with Chinatown history in mind
The space itself is outfitted with Chinatown history in mind. Original columns from the former opera house remain, as do several walls, floor beams, and floors. One dining area looks like a balcony, mimicking a VIP section of a theater. Elements of the staircase railings and the outside door are intended to look like the Chinese characters for "double happiness," shorthand for celebration and joy. Outside, the restaurant’s name, taken from the first fine dining restaurant in Chinatown, is written in Chinese. That was important to Lam, who thinks new businesses in the neighborhood should maintain Chinese names to keep the culture alive. "It’s so special," he says of Chinatown. "You have buildings built back in the 1800s. People appreciate the surroundings. But how are we going to provide the kind of environment that people can enjoy? It’s up to the merchants."
New York still has a gap in higher end, full-service Chinese restaurants. Korean, Thai, and Indian food have made more headway, with lauded spots like Oiji, Uncle Boons, and Babu Ji making waves on the dining scene. Lam and Buckingham hope that Chinese Tuxedo will show diners the wide range of what Chinese food can be. "In a neighborhood as special and established and traditional as this one, the only way for credibility is acceptance over time," Buckingham says. "We want to write ourselves into the neighborhood. I think people will respond to it positively. At the end of the day, our food speaks for us."